Shakespeare on modern medicine

Two day ago I posted a blog that summarises an article that destroys the three assumptions on which modern medicine is based: “that medical advances are essentially unlimited; that none of the major lethal diseases is in theory incurable; and that progress is economically affordable if well managed.”  Last night I went to see a candle-lit production of All’s Well That Ends Well at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre and discovered that the play touched on similar themes. There is that sense with Shakespeare, as with the Bible, that everything is there–but perhaps with fewer contradictions in Shakespeare; probably because he was one man rather than a great gathering of mostly nameless people.

In the play the King of France is sick, close to death:

“He hath abandoned his physicians, madam; under whose

practises he hath persecuted time with hope, and

finds no other advantage in the process but only the

losing of hope by time.”

That seems to me a good description of what is happening in many modern hospitals at the end of life: time is being persecuted with hope (of a cure), and eventually hope gives way to time.

The king’s courtiers talk of a physician of great skill, who unfortunately is dead:

“[His] skill was

almost as great as his honesty; had it stretched so

far, would have made nature immortal, and death

should have play for lack of work. Would, for the

king’s sake, he were living! I think it would be

the death of the king’s disease.”

His skill was less than his honesty, but if he’d been as skilful as honest, surely the case with many of our physicians of today, then he “would have made nature immortal, and death should have play for lack of work.” The dream of immortality and that it can be achieved by medicine is old.

The courtier continues:

“I have seen a medicine

That’s able to breathe life into a stone,

Quicken a rock, and make you dance canary

With spritely fire and motion; whose simple touch,

Is powerful to araise King Pepin, nay,

To give great Charlemain a pen in’s hand,

And write to her a love-line.”

What modern-day drug company would not have loved a copywriter as skilled as Shakespeare? Modern day companies promise drugs that will “breathe life into a stone” and “make you dance canary.” You can see the ads in medical journals.

As it happens, the dead skilled physician left his most powerful remedy with his daughter. She offers to cure the king, who is sceptical:

But may not be so credulous of cure,

When our most learned doctors leave us and

The congregated college have concluded

That labouring art can never ransom nature

From her inaidible estate; I say we must not

So stain our judgment, or corrupt our hope,

To prostitute our past-cure malady

To empirics, or to dissever so

Our great self and our credit, to esteem

A senseless help when help past sense we deem.

This seems to me a sensible speech, and I hope that when the time comes I might have the courage to say that same (in much less glorious language). Shakespeare lived at the same time and in the same city as the philosopher Francis Bacon, who was the first to advance the idea that medicine could hold off death. The king is expressing the belief that existed before Bacon, but perhaps Shakespeare is siding with Bacon–because the King is cured by the remedy. (The text but not last night’s performance makes clear that he had a fistula, which would not be cured by a potion but would need surgery.) I don’t think that Shakespeare was siding with Bacon–it was simply essential for the plot for the king to be cured.

Alls well


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